GALAPAGOS ISLANDS & MACHU PICCHU
by Jack Christopher
From ground zero of the origins of evolutionary biology to one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on Earth, the combined trip package to two great Andean destinations — the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu — will be for many the trip of a lifetime. The itinerary includes some of the most awesome creatures to be found anywhere, and an almost surreal ghost city set high up in mountain cliffs. Add to this the blend of cultures, history, culinary delights and a friendly and professional tour package, and you come away feeling both satisfied and awestruck.
The first destination on our combination tour was Ecuador, via a flight from one’s home city (which, in the case of my wife and me along with our travel companions, was Portland, Oregon). Typical arrival time is between 9 and 11 p.m. local time at the international airport in Quito. The ride to our boutique-style hotel, The Plaza Grande, was just about 20 minutes away. We were very pleased that we took our travel company’s advice and arrived two nights prior to our Galapagos cruise, as we noticed so many sites worth seeing in the Quito area on the way to the Plaza Grande. We didn’t have to go anywhere to see one of the great local sights: the Presidential Palace of Ecuador was located right across the street from the boutique-style suites of the hotel!
The following morning, we commenced a scheduled tour (via SUV) of the city of Quito and Mitad del Mundo (literally translated “the Middle of the World”, because it’s on the equator). Our guide was the same gentleman who brought us to the Plaza Grande from the Quito International Airport. We visited many local sites, among them Plaza San Francisco and Calle La Ronda (known as one of the narrowest streets in the world). We then drove to Mitad del Mundo, which includes a monument pointing out the equatorial line and a Spanish-style colonial village and museum. At the exact location of the equator we were able to balance an egg on a nail!
Back at the hotel, our guide recommended a restaurant called La Choza, located in the magnificent colonial section of Quito, and we asked him to join us for a lovely dinner.
Nature’s Pristine Zoo
The next morning’s flight to the Galapagos Islands, located 600 miles west of Ecuador’s mainland, was just about three hours with a short stop in Guayaquil. Upon arriving in the Galapagos we took a panga (Zodiac raft) to board the all-suite i>Galapagos Explorer II for our 5-day cruise. The suites were superb, and included a balcony where Blue-footed boobies (tropical sea birds) dove into the water to hunt for their prey right below us.
The Galapagos Islands, which were Charles Darwin’s natural laboratory (see sidebar at end of article), are home to unique giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions, and indigenous birds. And, as one of the most dynamic volcanic areas, they are geologically fascinating as well.
The cruise consisted of two naturalist outings per day which lasted up to about four hours each. Altogether, the cruise covered the popular islands of Santa Cruz, Bartolome, South Plaza, and Isabela. We walked through great mangroves, lava deposits, and white sandy beaches — and, on Bartolome, we inhabited a landscape of nearly lunar lifelessness, with awe-inspiring 360-degree distant views in all directions. We frequently spotted some of the indigenous marine and land iguanas, and saw sea lions very up-close. In addition to walking, we had the opportunity to snorkel many times.
Two of the many memorable experiences on our trip epitomize the uniqueness of the Galapagos. The first of these was swimming with penguins off Bartolome Island. Of course, the very fact that there are penguins in these equatorial islands is amazing. The Galapagos penguins are smaller and move around much faster than the familiar Emperor penguins from Antarctica. And they are expert swimmers! Not only do these penguins playfully interact with human swimmers, they easily keep up with the best of them.
The second of these experiences was seeing Lonesome George. This giant Pinta Island tortoise (from the northern Galapagos), now living at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, is the only known surviving representative of his species. So far no Pinta females have been found, although researchers keep looking. To make matters worse, even if one were to be found, Lonesome George has shown no mating interest with any tortoises and he may also have trouble producing sperm.
The four-night naturalist cruise of the islands that we did was really the minimum for seeing the highlights of the Galapagos Islands that so enchanted Darwin and nearly everyone who has visited since. Had we not also included Machu Picchu on our itinerary, our group would have all been in favor of the 7-night cruise.
The flight to Lima for the next leg of the tour took about 3-1/2 hours, including a two-hour layover and change of planes in the port city of Guayaquil.
Living Incan Ruins
After arriving in Lima we were taken to the local airport hotel. Early the next morning, around 6 a.m., we boarded our one-hour flight to Cusco, the 11,000-foot gateway city to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. A pleasant guide in Cusco took us to our local upscale boutique-style hotel, the Libertador, which was once the palace of Francisco Pissarro, the Conqueror.
After a short rest the four of us were taken on a private tour of Cusco, including the famous plazas and the Sacsayhuaman Ruins located not far from our hotel. Sacsayhuaman is an elaborate Incan stonework complex of extremely precise construction, apparently completed in the early 16th century. Its purposes and its method of construction have remained a mystery to this day, in spite of many theories. Even the 16th-century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega was awed and dumbfounded as to how Sacsayhuaman was built, saying that it surpasses in its ingenuity and mystery the ancient “seven wonders of the world.” We tourists were fortunate to have a guide who grew up in the region and knew it very well.
The next morning at around 8 a.m. we began our two-and-a-half-hour Alpine Rail excursion to Aguas Calientes, the city just below Machu Picchu, where we were transferred to a bus for the final 15-minute leg of the tour. It would be difficult to exaggerate the otherworldly beauty and sense of mystery that this ruin evokes. Set high up in a hillside, adjacent to spectacular pointed mountain peaks, it seems quite inevitable that this has been voted one of today’s seven wonders of the world. From our guides we learned about the Incan empire and some of the apparent purposes of this site. No one knows the ultimate purpose of these structures (theories have maintained that it was everything from a prison for heinous criminals to a defensive retreat), but today most archaeologists believe it was a retreat for Inca rulers, and that the site was selected for its sacred (and astronomically significant) landscape features. Whatever this place once was, the panorama of temples, baths, terraces, and other ruins in this verdant setting strongly evokes a very distant world.
Constructed in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was apparently abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, and was one of the sites not plundered by the invaders. Amazingly, it remained generally unknown to Europeans for centuries and was not brought to worldwide attention until 1911, when Hiram Bingham, a Yale lecturer and historian, was led up to the ruins by a local 11-year-old Quechua boy, and later wrote a book titled The Lost City of the Incas.
Following lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge we decided to go on a brief hike through one of the many trails in this magical area. We stayed over-night at the Macchu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, which lies on 200 acres of lush landscape. The next morning we went back up to bid farewell to these spectacular ruins.
For our last night we returned to our boutique hotel in Cusco. The next morning our group flew from Cusco to Lima and awaited our international flight back to Portland.
The experiences of these magical places made for a vacation that may rival anything that could be imagined. Our memories of Lonesome George, the penguins, and the living remains of the Ancient Incan Empire will always remain truly special. We all felt we had in some sense journeyed to the origins of Earth and the deep mysteries of an ancient civilization and back again.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on custom-designed programs to the Galapagos Islands and Quito, Machu Picchu and Cusco, and the Amazon, contact Wildlife Vacations, Inc., toll-free 877-385-1433, firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.wildlife-vacations.com
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Charles Darwin & the Galagapos Islands: A Discovery That Changed the World
As a student and naturalist on board the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836, Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Archipelago and made the first known scientific study of the region in 1835. He saw many species of birds that live nowhere else on earth, and saw numerous animals that also lived on the Ecuadorian mainland but were not the same animals. This led inevitably to his conclusion that “species are not ... immutable” (contrary to the prevailing opinion of the time). He came to believe that the species steadily altered to survive the Galapagos’ environmental conditions. Thus, the Galapagos were the foundations from which his ideas and research (published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species) evolved.
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Machu Picchu & The Galapagos Islands: TIPS on ALTITUDE, WEATHER, & PREPARATION
1. Although Ecuador and Peru are in the heart of tropical latitudes, all of the main stops on this itinerary except the Galapagos Islands are at quite high elevations (between 7,000 and 12,000 feet). This greatly affects the weather, the amount of UV radiation, and the need to acclimate to “thin air.”
2. It is always advisable to take extra time get used to high altitudes before embarking on long hikes or strenuous activity. If you or members of your party are pregnant, elderly, or have heart or lung conditions, seek the advice of a doctor or fitness expert before your trip. Also, some trails may present problems for those with fear of heights.
3. A strong sunblock, excellent hiking shoes, waterproof gear, and layered clothing (including warm jackets for evenings) are mandatory. Do not underestimate the possibility of sunburn and skin damage at these high altitudes if your skin is unprotected. Although daytime temperatures at Quito (near 9,500 feet) and Cusco (near 11,000 feet) are temperate (generally low 70s F.) throughout the year, nights often plummet to the 40s at Quito, and below freezing at Cusco in the “cool” months of June, July and August. (Seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.) Machu Picchu (at 7,700 feet) is a bit warmer than Cusco.
4. While weather in the Galapagos Islands is more typically tropical (with daytimes 70s to low 80s), the Humboldt Current moves north to the islands between June and December, resulting in marked cooling. Mists are frequent and midday showers can occur.
5. Keep a supply of fresh water and snacks when on foot and away from facilities. Although food is not officially allowed at Machu Picchu (and none can be purchased on the site itself), you will need water, and snacks as well if you plan to stay a good part of the day. Do not litter under any circumstances. (There are several decent restaurants at Aguas Calientes, near the train stop.)